BEIJING—China is directing a crushing campaign of religious repression against Muslim Uighurs in the name of anti-separatism and counter-terrorism, a report by two US-based human rights groups said yesterday.
“At its most extreme, peaceful activists practicing their religion in ways that the party and government deem unacceptable are arrested, tortured, and at times executed,” said the 114-page report by Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China.
“The harshest punishments are saved for those accused of involvement in so-called separatist activity, which officials increasingly term ‘terrorism’ for domestic and external consumption.”
The report, “Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang”, is based on previously undisclosed Communist Party and government documents.
It also draws on local regulations, official newspaper accounts, and interviews conducted in Xinjiang.
“Uighurs are seen by Beijing as an ethno-nationalist threat to the Chinese state,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China.
“As Islam is perceived as underpinning Uighur ethnic identity, China has taken draconian steps to smother Islam as a means of subordinating Uighur nationalist sentiment.”
The report claims to unveil for the first time “the complex architecture of law, regulation, and policy in Xinjiang that denies Uighurs religious freedom, and by extension freedom of association, assembly, and expression”.
“Chinese policy and law enforcement stifle religious activity and thought even in school and at home,” it said.
Uighurs, a Turkish-speaking minority of eight million whose traditional homeland lies in the oil-rich Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwest China, have become increasingly fearful for their cultural survival and traditional way of life as China makes inroads into the area.
An intense internal migration drive has witnessed the arrival of more than 1.2 million ethnic Chinese settlers over the past decade and many Uighurs desire greater autonomy, with some wishing for a separate state of East Turkestan.
“The worldwide campaign against terrorism has given Beijing the perfect excuse to crack down harder than ever in Xinjiang,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“Other Chinese enjoy a growing freedom to worship, but the Uighurs, like the Tibetans, find that their religion is being used as a tool of control.”
The report said half of the inmates in Xinjiang labor camps have been jailed without trial or judicial review, for allegedly engaging in separatist activities.
At a more mundane level, Uighurs face strict prohibition on celebrating religious holidays, studying religious texts or showing their religion at state institutions including schools.
Uighur government officials or workers in state institutions or state-owned enterprises are even prohibited from growing beards, a long-held Muslim tradition, it said.
The Chinese government also vets those who can be Islamic clerics.
The rights groups called on the international community to press China to repeal the regulations and end policies and practices of discrimination against Uighurs.
China rebutted the accusations yesterday, and insisted separatists colluded with international terrorists.
“I want to point out that all tribes in Xinjiang enjoy all the civil rights under the constitution, including religious freedom,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.
“East Turkestan forces colluded with international terrorist groups inside and outside China to create large quantities of terrorist acts, threatening the peace and stability of China and the region.”